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Mind Macros 57: The indirect approach, strategic calculation, and overcompensation
“My solitude doesn’t depend on the presence or absence of people; on the contrary, I hate who steals my solitude without, in exchange, offering me true company.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.
Food for Thought
I. The indirect approach
“In a study of some 30 conflicts comprising more than 280 campaigns from ancient to modern history, the brilliant strategist and historian B. H. Liddell Hart came to a stunning conclusion: In only 6 of the 280 campaigns was the decisive victory a result of a direct attack on the enemy’s main army. Only six. That’s 2 percent. If not from pitched battles, where do we find victory? From everywhere else. From the flanks. From the unexpected. From the psychological. From drawing opponents out from their defenses. From the untraditional. From anything but . . . As Hart writes in his masterwork Strategy: [T]he Great Captain will take even the most hazardous indirect approach—if necessary over mountains, deserts or swamps, with only a fraction of the forces, even cutting himself loose from his communications. Facing, in fact, every unfavorable condition rather than accept the risk of stalemate invited by direct approach. When you’re at your wit’s end, straining and straining with all your might, when people tell you you look like you might pop a vein . . . Take a step back, then go around the problem. Find some leverage. Approach from what is called the ‘line of least expectation’. What’s your first instinct when faced with a challenge? Is it to outspend the competition? Argue with people in an attempt to change long-held opinions? Are you trying to barge through the front door? Because the back door, side doors, and windows may have been left wide open. Whatever you’re doing, it’s going to be harder (to say nothing of impossible) if your plan includes defying physics or logic. Instead, think of Grant realizing he had to bypass Vicksburg—not go at it—in order to capture it. Think of Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson and his famous triangle offense, which is designed to automatically route the basketball away from defensive pressure rather than attack it directly. If we’re starting from scratch and the established players have had time to build up their defenses, there is just no way we are going to beat them on their strengths. So it’s smarter to not even try, but instead focus our limited resources elsewhere.
“Part of the reason why a certain skill often seems so effortless for great masters is not just because they’ve mastered the process—they really are doing less than the rest of us who don’t know any better. They choose to exert only calculated force where it will be effective, rather than straining and struggling with pointless attrition tactics. As someone once put it after fighting Jigoro Kano, the legendary five-foot-tall founder of judo, ‘Trying to fight with Kano was like trying to fight with an empty jacket!’ That can be you. Being outnumbered, coming from behind, being low on funds, these don’t have to be disadvantages. They can be gifts. Assets that make us less likely to commit suicide with a head-to-head attack. These things force us to be creative, to find workarounds, to sublimate the ego and do anything to win besides challenging our enemies where they are strongest. These are the signs that tell us to approach from an oblique angle. In fact, having the advantage of size or strength or power is often the birthing ground for true and fatal weakness. The inertia of success makes it much harder to truly develop good technique. People or companies who have that size advantage never really have to learn the process when they’ve been able to coast on brute force. And that works for them . . . until it doesn’t. Until they meet you and you make quick work of them with deft and oblique maneuvers, when you refuse to face them in the one setting they know: head-to-head. We’re in the game of little defeating big. Therefore, Force can’t try to match Force. Of course, when pushed, the natural instinct is always to push back. But martial arts teach us that we have to ignore this impulse. We can’t push back, we have to pull until opponents lose their balance. Then we make our move. The art of the side-door strategy is a vast, creative space. And it is by no means limited to war, business, or sales.” — From The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday (view my three takeaways).
In The Third Door, eighteen-year-old Alex Banayan describes his journey to gain insight from some of the world's most notable people. His determination leads him to interviews with Bill Gates, Maya Angelou, Steve Wozniak, Larry King, and many more. Banayan’s philosophy is explained on the first page of his book:
“Life, business, success…it’s just like a nightclub. There are always three ways in. There’s the First Door: the main entrance, where the line curves around the block; where 99 percent of people wait around, hoping to get in. There’s the Second Door: the VIP entrance, where the billionaires, celebrities, and the people born into it slip through. But what no one tells you is that there is always, always…the Third Door. It’s the entrance where you have to jump out of line, run down the alley, bang on the door a hundred times, crack open the window, sneak through the kitchen—there’s always a way.”
Over two millennia before Banayan, Sun Tzu - a Chinese general, strategist, and philosopher - wrote the book The Art of War. This work has since come to be highly revered amongst military minds and has found its way into the discourse of commerce, politics, and even personal relationships.
In The Art of War, Tzu taught the importance of discipline, adaptability, and calculated strategies. He advocates that one should be aware of their behavior, and that of their opponents, to achieve victory without shedding a single drop of blood. Tzu believed that the wisest strategists employ techniques that thwart their opponent's schemes, causing them to destroy themselves. Rather than striving to overpower adversaries directly, it was preferable to exhaust them; foster disharmony in their ranks; manipulate their emotions; and exploit their anger and arrogance to use against them.
Although we may not be engaged in military-style confrontation and lack true opponents in our lives, the idea of opting for the indirect path, or the "third door," is highly pertinent. Life is a hierarchical structure that leaves us competing against others for the same opportunities. Whether it is in the search for romantic partners, career advancement, or the most attractive properties. The most desirable suitors have the most options, the most coveted careers have the fewest openings, and the finest houses have only a single owner. Scarcity creates allure. We want what is least accessible, never what is commonplace.
While pursuing success, we imagine the path as direct, represented by the left arrow above. However, the winding, complicated route, represented by the right arrow – full of failures, obstacles, and rejections – ultimately yields our desired outcome.
The days look like the graph of our daily weigh-ins. Some days we’ve gained, some we’ve lost, but the trend is moving in the correct direction. All we need to do is zoom out to see the forest from the trees.
“Many, like the great Roman statesman Cato the Censor, looked at comfort, almost any form of comfort, as a road to waste. He did not like it when we had it too easy, as he worried about the weakening of the will. And the softening he feared was not just at the personal level: an entire society can fall ill. Consider that as I am writing these lines, we are living in a debt crisis. The world as a whole has never been richer, and it has never been more heavily in debt, living off borrowed money. The record shows that, for society, the richer we become, the harder it gets to live within our means. Abundance is harder for us to handle than scarcity.”
“It is said that the best horses lose when they compete with slower ones, and win against better rivals. Undercompensation from the absence of a stressor, inverse hormesis, absence of challenge, degrades the best of the best.
“This mechanism of overcompensation hides in the most unlikely places. If tired after an intercontinental flight, go to the gym for some exertion instead of resting. Also, it is a well-known trick that if you need something urgently done, give the task to the busiest (or second busiest) person in the office. Most humans manage to squander their free time, as free time makes them dysfunctional, lazy, and unmotivated—the busier they get, the more active they are at other tasks. Overcompensation, here again.
“I’ve discovered a trick when giving lectures. I have been told by conference organizers that one needs to be clear, to speak with the fake articulation of TV announcers, maybe even dance on the stage to get the attention of the crowd. Some try sending authors to ‘speech school’—the first time it was suggested to me I walked out, resolved to change publishers on the spot. I find it better to whisper, not shout. Better to be slightly inaudible, less clear. When I was a pit trader (one of those crazy people who stand in a crowded arena shouting and screaming in a continuous auction), I learned that the noise produced by the person is inverse to the pecking order: as with mafia dons, the most powerful traders were the least audible. One should have enough self-control to make the audience work hard to listen, which causes them to switch into intellectual overdrive. This paradox of attention has been a little bit investigated: there is empirical evidence of the effect of “disfluency.” Mental effort moves us into higher gear, activating more vigorous and more analytical brain machinery. The management guru Peter Drucker and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, two persons who mesmerized the crowds the most in their respective areas, were the antithesis of the polished-swanky speaker or the consonant-trained television announcer.
“The same or a similar mechanism of overcompensation makes us concentrate better in the presence of a modicum of background random noise, as if the act of countering such noise helps us hone our mental focus. Consider this remarkable ability humans have to filter out noise at happy hour and distinguish the signal among so many other loud conversations. So not only are we made to overcompensate, but we sometimes need the noise. Like many writers, I like to sit in cafés, working, as they say, against resistance.” — From Antifragility by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
In 'overcompensation' behavior, somebody will try to overcorrect for what they feel is a deficiency, often in an attempt to make up for a perceived slight or injustice.
For example, someone may feel the need to overcompensate for what they perceive as their lack of intelligence by aggressively asserting their opinions. Those who shout the loudest have the least to contribute and command the least respect. Such people may initially gather an audience, but the listeners will quickly tune the speaker out and let the verbosity become background noise.
Body language and aura have the same effect. Think Marlon Brando in The Godfather; a faint voice that reels us in, no gestating to direct the attention to the words, and a Stoic-like calm delivered with indifference. Brando radiates confidence and command. This communication style is not ideal for all occasions; a rookie employee should not imitate Brando's magnetism in delivering a presentation; however, the CEO conceivably should.
Taleb draws attention to overcompensation on a societal level, contributing to a deterioration of its overall structure. By placing an excessive focus on protection, security, and safety, a society becomes risk-averse, inflexible, and reliant on established norms and conventions. The inhabitants of this world become feeble as they are flooded with luxuries, ease, and gratification. Thus, the words of G. Michael Hopf:
“Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times."
This phrase captures the cyclical nature of life. A person's character is fashioned in tough times, which produces strong leaders who build flourishing societies. The abundance of resources creates comfort, producing weak leadership that plunges societies into hard times, which subsequently starts the cycle anew.
As Taleb observes, it is easier to deal with deprivation than excess – the former sharpens the faculties while the latter blunts them.
Quotes to Ponder
I. Lucius Annaeus Seneca on the need for challenge:
“We must give up many things to which we are addicted, considering them to be good. Otherwise, courage will vanish, which should continually test itself. Greatness of soul will be lost, which can’t stand out unless it disdains as petty what the mob regards as most desirable.”
II. Friedrich Nietzsche on solitude and friendship:
“My solitude doesn’t depend on the presence or absence of people; on the contrary, I hate who steals my solitude without, in exchange, offering me true company.”
Thank you for reading,